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David Holloway on: Consequences of the First Soviet Test
David Holloway Q: What are the consequences of the successful test in August 1949 of the first Soviet atomic device?

DH: Well, of course, August '49 when they tested the first Soviet atomic device, it was a pretty tense period for the scientists...maybe even more so than for the people managing the project. I once asked [physicist Iulii] Khariton was he nervous. And he said no, you know, he knew pretty much that this thing was going to work, that we had it right. But there is quite good evidence that [the head of the nuclear program Lavrentii] Beria and the other managers were much less sure. Of course, they did not understand the physics of the design...they harbored doubts about the reliability of the scientists.

And I was told an interesting story. There was a Soviet physicist, a man called Michel Yakov who was at the '49 test. He had also been one of the two Soviet delegates to the American series of tests in Bikini Atoll in 1946. And he was placed, he said, in a bunker somewhere near the Soviet test, and after the test, he was to wait there, and sometime after the test, a group of cars drove up very quickly and out stepped Beria and asked him, well did this look like what you saw in 1946. And he said yes, sir, it did. So I think that's a pretty clear indication that Beria -- you know, he needed some kind of confirmation that this was the right thing. That he wasn't being sold a pup.

Q: So by '53 the Soviet Union is ready to test the "Layer Cake". At the last minute the scientists realize that they haven't thought about the fallout problem.

DH: Right, right, yes...when they get ready to carry out the August '53 test, [the scientists] realize at the last moment, that there is going to be a fallout problem, and they had better do something about it. And it shows, I think, how focused they were just on the mechanics of the bomb itself, on getting that right, and then only at the last minute does one of the scientists, using in fact, the American publication on nuclear weapons effects point out that, "Hey, look, this could be dangerous for the people living in the area." So they have to carry -- in fact, they have to make a decision: Should they delay the test or do a kind of very rapid evacuation of people, and of course, that's what they do.

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